One of the most exhilarating events that Chris and I attended in our early stages of starting Virginia Beer Co. was the Craft Brewers Conference. This conference is organized by the Brewers Association (touched on in a previous post) on a yearly basis. It moves from East Coast to Midwest to West Coast venues each year, so you get a chance to experience craft beer around the country. It's primary focus is on improving brewery education and performance for brewpubs and production breweries. The event includes industry updates ("My fellow Craft Brewians: the state of the craft beer industry is good."); seminars focused on topics from breweries-in-planning to advanced brewing techniques; and BrewExpo America, a trade show for exhibitors and buyers that allows attendees to experience first-hand products and services that industry vendors have to offer. Oh yeah, and there are waterfalls of free craft beer cascading as far as the palate can last. If you've ever dreamt of discussing the pros & cons of a two-vessel versus four-vessel brewing system with an NSI rep while drinking free Russian River Supplication, well this is the event for you. Seriously though the Craft Brewers Conference has been one of the best events that we have spent time and money on, and if you'll grant me a few words after the jump I will attempt to explain why.
#CBC12 - San Diego, CA
Chris and I first took the plunge and made a financial investment in attending our first Craft Brewers Conference in May 2012. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into but we knew we wanted to open a craft brewery; surrounding ourselves with craft beer Illuminati seemed as good a way as any to learn how to get closer to that dream. We had only recently joined the Brewers Association and were still in the early stages of our formal business plan...we didn't even have a name for the brewery yet! One of the great things about the CBC is that the BA will send out a very detailed list of the events taking place throughout the almost week-long conference. Chris and I were able to split up attending sessions for breweries-in-planning and startup breweries, maximizing our time at the conference in San Diego. We made a point to attend the BrewExpo as well so we could talk to equipment fabricators and merchandise manufacturers. We meekly approached other craft brewers who were ahead of us in their goals in hopes of networking as well. Long story short - we had no clue what we were doing. We even dressed up! Not to say we shouldn't try to look nice, but a sweater vest and blazer in the California summer? Really? It was overwhelming to an extent (the heat, and the event), seeing these thousands of people in our chosen industry sampling beers, leading educational seminars, and haggling over hop prices in the spot market. But despite our gross inadequacy of experience compared to many of our peers, it was worth it. We experienced craft beer in yet another new city (plus we learned what San Diego really means and it has nothing to do with a whale). We spent a week surrounded by our industry brethren, learning to "talk the talk" and "walk the walk". For the future VBC, we learned where we needed more information and experience. And we got a taste of what a full-time job in the growing craft beer world would entail. Experience 101, in a nutshell.
#CBC13 - Washington, D.C.
We had a year to adjust our approach between CBC12 and CBC13, and more importantly, to learn about the industry. The business plan was in full draft mode, the brewery name was decided, and we had settled on Williamsburg, VA as our final landing spot. We were even in the midst of starting our search for a head brewer! I guess based on the outfits we wore to CBC12 we dressed as if we were already running a business (Editor's note: you would buy a sweater vest with a brewery logo sewn on, right?). We approached the conference in DC with a lot more confidence. We better knew where to focus our time throughout the week and that made breaking down seminars covering topics like working with distributors and trademark law that much easier. We also had a much healthier level of swagger when it came to introducing ourselves to vendors at the BrewExpo trade show; the time for falderal was over and we were ready to build ourselves a brewery (with a heaping dose of advice from everyone we came into contact with that week). We had a distinct advantage in DC as the city basically acts as my home city. I was very familiar with the layout of the city having grown up in Northern VA and this made getting to the convention center and then around from venue to venue after each day's sessions much more feasible. Part of the fun of the CBC is not just the learning and shopping, but the chance for breweries from out of town to showcase their beer in new and unique venues. As an example of just how many events and just how much beer is flowing during CBC week, check out DCBeer's calendar of events from 2013. Humphrey Bogart's quote about the whole world being three drinks behind does not come into play during the CBC. These events, while fun (especially if you're on Untappd), are even better for the networking opportunities. We were really lucky to meet a lot of leaders in the Virginia craft beer scene during that week, contacts that still hold up to this day.
#CBC14 - Denver, CO
The Craft Brewers Conference in Denver was a complete 180 for us. Denver, as you may have heard, is an up and coming beer city. The energy at the conference felt like it was a mile high! We came into this conference with a lot of confidence knowing with whom we needed to speak, what vendors we needed to seek out, and how best to optimize our time away from Williamsburg. The week did not disappoint as we met some great contacts from the Midwest and Mountain West brewing circles. The opening ceremony was at Mile High Stadium so we achieved the requisite sightseeing status for tourists. And a big difference from this CBC compared to the past two, we spent most of our time in the BrewExpo tradeshow as opposed to the seminars. Note: we absolutely needed to attend the seminars, but we had to make a choice regarding how to maximize our time. The BA is great about recording every seminar and then allowing attendees of that year's CBC to download the recordings and presentations. It's like skipping school and then having a fully legible audio recording of the prior day's lectures waiting for you when you get home. Except in this case skipping school meant meeting with our equipment fabricators, discussing options for tap handles, and sampling experimental hop varietals (to name a few activities). Our time at CBC14 helped to give us direct access to the vendors we had been talking to and in some cases signing contracts with (else we'd have to find a cost effective way of trekking up to British Columbia on a regular basis), and reaffirmed how much experience we'd gained compared to our formal humble beginnings in 2012.
Long story short, it's been worthwhile to attend these conferences. To toss in a term from my finance days, from a knowledge and confidence standpoint we're definitely just starting the upswing on our J curve after three years of attendance. But the money spent and time allocated to travel to each of these destinations has paid dividends in networking, experience, beer sampling, in-person vendor contact, and most importantly, beer sampling. Already looking forward to #CBC15 in Portland, OR!